You might call it love at first spike.
The very first time Brianna Solberg and Katie Friesen joined forces on the beach volleyball court last summer, their coach could tell she was watching a special team.
"From Day 1, I was like ‘Wow,’" said Wanda Guenette, the former Olympian who coaches the duo at High Line Beach Volleyball Club. "These girls are gifted athletes and the connection was immediate."
So it was no surprise to Guenette when the duo finished fourth at last year’s national championships with only a couple months of training under their belt, and it was even less shocking when they improved to a bronze-medal showing this year in Vancouver in the 18-and-under division.
"It was pretty emotional," said Solberg, who lives in Riverbend and Pritchard Farm, of the three-set victory over a Vancouver team on Aug. 19. "Throughout the whole tournament our nerves were high. It was good to end the season by winning our last game."
The team went 10-1 at nationals, their only loss coming in the semifinals against the eventual champions from B.C. After last year’s fourth-place finish in the 16-and-under division, the teammates made it their goal to do at least one better.
"Next year hopefully we’ll step up to the top two," Solberg said.
Solberg, a 17-year-old who plays high school volleyball for Miles Macdonell Collegiate, and Friesen, a 15-year-old from Niverville, both showed up at High Line’s high-performance identification camp without a partner. When Solberg asked if Friesen wanted to join forces and the younger player accepted, a dynamic partnership was formed.
"I think what’s great about us is we both have a competitive edge, and both know it’s important to win," said Solberg, who was also part of the national bronze-medal winning Shock indoor club team over the winter. "We don’t like to lose. We’re really competitive people."
How competitive are they? Guenette calls them a pair of "little lions" on the court.
Solberg is 5-foot-11 with a big vertical, which she uses to launch devastating spikes and make demoralizing blocks. Friesen is 5-foot-7, has a "plethora of shots" and uses her quickness to make acrobatic digs. Both players can serve and set with precision.
"They’re smart players," Guenette said. "They’re students of the game… always strategizing."
The duo makes the most of Manitoba’s short beach season by playing and practising almost exclusively against senior teams that consist mostly of university players.
"We came in second in one 21U tournament," Solberg said. "I feel like that helped us a bit, playing against older, more skilled players all summer. When we went to nationals it made it easier for us."
How good can Solberg and Friesen get? That might depend on whether they ever get a chance to work on their game between Labour Day and Victoria Day. An indoor beach facility in Winnipeg could do wonders for the team and the sport.
"I think if we could give them an extra two months (to train), they could easily be national champions," Guenette said.